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From Soft Skills To Hard Results: The Critical Link Between People Management and Product Management With Onefit Product Manager, Cornelia Reh


How do you get the best from your employees? Old-school management theory tends to frame workers as raw materials – cogs in a machine that need to be focused and efficient. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the modern workplace, with tight deadlines, cross-functional teams and highly complex systems requires a more thoughtful approach to how employees should be managed. To learn more, we spoke with Cornelia Reh about her approach to product and people management.

Cornelia Reh | Interview

After completing her BSC in Business, Economics, and Social Sciences, Cornelia began her career at Deutsche Bank — initially as an intern, then as a graduate trainee, and finally as a Product Manager in their Digital Innovation & Think Tank department. She then moved to Bloomon, a Dutch flower delivery scaleup, and helped successfully launch the gifting side of their business. In June of 2019, Cornelia became Product Manager at OneFit — an Amsterdam-based company that offers users an all-in-one membership to access unlimited sports classes and studios across gyms in their network.

First of all, why do you love products? 

Oh don’t get me started — I could talk about products forever! For me, everything’s a product. I’m not just talking about apps or physical products that you can hold in your hand; it’s more of a metaphor. You see, products are ultimately about identifying a problem and coming up with a solution… So anything in life that helps people overcome problems is technically a product, right? 

I also think that product management is generally a great way to approach life. It gives you a fantastic foundation to help understand, manage, and change the world around you. You have to identify a problem, come up with a solution, and then go through the rigorous (and sometimes painstaking) steps towards building that solution from scratch. 

I genuinely believe that products are the fastest way to change the world for the better.

But surely you must have some frustrations when it comes to developing products?

During my time at Bloomon I remember quite vividly the lead up to our digital product launch, where we had everything with the website done, our order funnel in place and automated email confirmations were all set… or so we thought! As is often the case, things didn’t quite go according to plan. We had to delay the release multiple times to the extent that we had to freeze our flower inventory. When we did finally launch, our email service did not work and we had to send out responses manually, which was massively error-prone. But we rose to the challenge. You can’t always preempt and plan for every eventuality; sometimes you have to react and adapt to a bad situation.

I’ve also worked in teams that have struggled to accurately define success: the specific metrics that help you judge whether or not you’ve done a good job. Not only does this make it hard to report about your performance to the wider business (especially to senior stakeholders), but if you don’t have any kind of goals or success metrics in mind, it can be hard to motivate your team. 

I’ve found that having a company-wide North Star metric really helps — this could be your conversion rate, retention rate, net promoter score (NPS), or whatever else: a consistent target that everyone can use to measure success.

What does your general process look like when building a great product?

At OneFit, our primary purpose is always to increase retention so this is our specific approach:

1. Goals/problem — We start by making sure our objectives are clear. The overall goal here is obviously to increase retention but we want to also be specific on what success looks like and how we will measure it.

2. Data Mine — I sit down with the data team and collate all relevant data points. In this case, we want to better understand what drives retention. Here’s what we found:

  • When customers add friends to the app, it’s likely they’re going to work out in groups — so that’s a clear link to retention.
  • We’ve found that the more locations customers visit, the longer they’ll stay with OneFit.
  • After signing up, the sooner the customer goes for their first workout, the higher the retention rate.

3. Data monitor — once we identify the key metrics, I ask the data team to build out a real-time analytics dashboard so we can easily measure the results of our experiments throughout the process.

4. Interviews — I’m a big fan of interviewing your customer base and seeing what people like, don’t like, any tips or tricks, etc. I don’t think enough companies do this and it is often a big missed opportunity.

5. Prototype — After defining the problem, we start thinking about what solutions might look like and we build prototypes that people can review, iterate and collaborate on.

6. Prototype user testing —  we want to validate our solutions before building them out fully. User testing is the best way to get direct feedback on whether our approach is the right one for the customer.

7. Build — the fun part! Having prototyped and tested the approach before, we have clarified the solution and scope and dramatically reduced risk. However, we still need data to prove our solution works and does indeed increase user retention.

8. Report — after the product is launched, we need to understand whether or not it has the desired outcome and if our metrics indicate success. If not, we change our approach and in some cases, even go back to the drawing board. 

It sounds like you’re very process-focused…

Yes, I definitely am, but there’s more to being a successful manager than simply managing your products’ development. I invest plenty of time and energy in trying to help develop my team — the key is to build great relationships with your colleagues.

It really helps to understand different people’s personalities, ways of working, ultimate goals, and their motivation for coming into work each day. Some people might be there to simply pick up a paycheck — fine, that’s totally their prerogative. However, there might be others who really want to do amazing things in their career and need a different kind of support.

There’s little point in trying to follow carefully thought-out processes and create perfect products (not that there is such a thing!) if you’ve got an unmotivated team of disparate individuals. There’ll be times when you need to be hard on them, and times when you need to ask them for favours — it’s hard to do either if you don’t know them as people. 

The old ‘command and control’ style of leadership is long gone, especially in the world of startups. My job is as much about getting the most out of my team as it is about creating great products. In fact, the two are so intertwined that you really can’t have one without the other.

Mastering People Management

There’s a saying that’s been floating around in recent years: soft skills lead to hard results. 

In fact, this concept is becoming so popular that there have been numerous books written about it. But what does this really mean? And is it that important?

Soft skills (such as emotional intelligence, empathy, and communication) are the catalyst behind successful people management. As such, they’re becoming increasingly important in the business world — people are beginning to realise that not only does being nice make for a better workplace, it can significantly boost results.

There are a number of potential reasons why this occurs:

  • Employees feel happier at work which increases your employee retention rate — leading to less disruption and less time, effort, and money spent on getting new employees up-to-speed.
  • Individuals are less afraid of speaking their mind, which can greatly promote innovation and teamwork.
  • You’re more likely to work hard for people who you respect — and a key part of this is feeling like they respect you in return!
  • As a manager, you can appropriately assign tasks to individuals depending on their preferences, motivations, and skills. A strong understanding of your team’s preferences, strengths, and weaknesses can allow you to assign work more efficiently.

It’s no secret that the best leaders have exceptional people management skills — and this is no more evident than in the high-pressure sporting world. 

Take Phil Jackson, for example, who coached the dynastic Chicago Bulls basketball team during the 90s. His man-management style was crucial in their success — and it won him his team’s respect and utter dedication.

This was particularly notable with Dennis Rodman, a player with mercurial talent who occasionally felt unmotivated with the endless grind of an NBA season. Rodman was also known as much for his antics off the court as he was for his prowess on it — he was a complete contrarian whose dress sense, piercings, tattoos, and general attitude marked him as the consummate outsider. 

Previous coaches had tried to discipline Rodman, punish him for his partying, and generally make him toe the line — but Jackson recognised that this wasn’t how you got the most out of him.

First, Jackson decided to actually get to know the real Rodman, rather than letting the press dictate their relationship. This worked wonders — in fact, Rodman stated at the time that Jackson “Doesn’t look at me as a basketball player, he looks at me as a great friend”.

For a guy who’s always been a bit of an outsider, it was comforting to have such a great friend in the locker room — especially if that man was technically his boss.

YouTube video

Second, Jackson recognised that in order to get the best out of Rodman, he needed to give him a fairly long leash. The Bulls started the 1998 season without Scottie Pippen (one of their best players and most important leaders). Rodman had to step up in his absence — and he was a model teammate during this period.

But this took its toll. Once Pippen eventually returned, Rodman wanted to let loose.

Jackson agreed to let him take a holiday to Las Vegas right in the middle of an NBA season — something which few (if any) other NBA coaches would ever allow. Not only that, but he didn’t punish Rodman when he failed to return on the agreed-upon date. Instead, they moved past it, and Rodman helped the Bulls win an unprecedented 6th title in 8 years. 

This is just one example of how effective people management is critical in ensuring wider organisational success. Going forward, try to tailor your management style according to what works best for each individual member of your team.

It’ll work wonders — we promise.

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